On Nov. 4 I’m going to vote “yes’’ on ballot Question 3, which calls for the repeal of the 2011 law allowing casinos in Massachusetts. My reasons have nothing to do with moral objections or concern about gambling addiction, which to my mind distract attention from more compelling arguments. The meat of the case against casinos is, as 33 eminent scholars and other experts argued last year in an authoritative report entitled “Why Casinos Matter,’’ that they don’t deliver the jobs or tax revenues that they promise. Their overrated benefits are short-lived and their underestimated costs linger over the long term; they tend to drive out sound local businesses like restaurants and attract predatory ones like payday lenders; and they bring increases in problems like bankruptcy and corruption that strain a state’s political culture and social fabric.
I don’t hate casinos. Because they host boxing matches, I probably spend more time in them than do most other pro-repeal voters, and I’ll play a little roulette on my way into or out of a fight. The faint thrill wears off rapidly for me, but if other people like casinos that’s their business and none of mine.
However, my commitment to the principle of letting consenting adults do what they want reaches a limit when it comes to inviting into our state an industry that profits by weakening economies and communities. It’s one thing if my fellow citizens enjoy watching their own money go around and around the toilet bowl on the way down, but another entirely if it’s our shared quality of life they’re trying to flush.
I became sold on repeal a year ago, when the petition was circulating that would eventually result in Question 3, despite opposition from organized gambling and its allies in state government. Two developments since then have only strengthened my conviction.
First, the economic argument for repeal has gotten even stronger. As more casinos open in the Northeast, the regional market has become increasingly oversaturated, and the gambling industry’s claims that more casinos will produce net gains in jobs and revenues sound less convincing than ever. Over the summer, Moody’s downgraded its outlook for the casino industry from “stable” to “negative.”
Casino revenue in neighboring Connecticut is down 35 percent since 2007, and in New Jersey it’s down nearly 50 percent since 2006. Casinos are closing in Atlantic City, which with its string of brightly lit gambling palaces along the shoreline resembles a beach town beset by a dozen spaceships that blasted the place halfway to hell when they landed. Now the spaceships depart, leaving behind scorched ruins. Oh, well, back to trying to actually make stuff and provide services people can use. We already do that here.
The second development is that the casino industry has poured money into defeating repeal. As of the end of August, the pro-casino Coalition to Protect Mass Jobs had raised more than $1.7 million this year, compared to less than $250,000 raised by its opposite number, Repeal the Casino Deal. The no faction is running ads promising that casinos will bring jobs, and, while the state’s economy has recently taken a few more steps toward recovery that make casinos a harder sell, there are still plenty of depressed places, desperate people, and opportunistic politicians in Massachusetts ready to listen to a quick-fix gambling pitch. Various localities have voted down specific casino proposals, but people unwilling to allow a casino in their backyard are less exercised about having a couple halfway across the state. Polls show that repeal’s running behind, and the late money’s coming in on the other side.
Carlo Rotella is director of American studies at Boston College. His latest book is “Playing in Time: Essays, Profiles, and Other True Stories.’’